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Religious Liberty Committee Spotlight: Danbury Baptist Association

Posted: 2/17/17 at 10:00am.

Religious Freedom: What is it, and why should persons have it? Check here each month to see how historic Baptist and other champions of religious freedom have answered these questions. These spotlights are sponsored by the BGAV’s Religious Liberty Committee.

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Part of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.

The Danbury Baptist Association was organized in 1790 with twenty-six churches from Connecticut and New York as members.  At its 1800 meeting, a petition was started for a statewide repeal of all laws in Connecticut that could be interpreted as supporting an established religion.

On October 8, 1801, the DBA met at Colebrook, Connecticut, and commissioned a committee to pen a letter to the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Its letter, and the President’s reply on January 1, 1802, made front page news all across America. The DBA’s letter to Jefferson defines religious liberty as well as anything written.

Part of it is as follows:

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor: But Sir, our [Connecticut’s] constitution of government is not specific.

Our ancient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our government, At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.

It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretense of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men—should reproach their chief Magistrate [Jefferson], as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

From The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 35:407-9